Music, Reviews

Aldous Harding Melbourne review

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“Show the ferret to the egg” (the refrain from last year’s The Barrel), really sums up Aldous Harding. It’s obtuse, consciously arty and wry. You don’t know how firmly Harding’s tongue is placed in her cheek, or whether it’s all as intense as it seems. To complicate it further, watch the very funny video then see her live and serious, even if she is wearing the same costume as in the first half of that video.

Welcome to the Forum, where this particular musical gladiator is playing to a thumbs up crowd. As a former resident, ensconced above an inner-city pub, generating the material that became her first album, there is a lot of love in the room. She seems at times genuinely moved by this, as she self-consciously jokes about criticisms of her lack of audience interaction.

There’s no doubt Harding is odd and awkward in her manner and overwhelmingly intense. She has produced past performances on TV and video that are bug-eyed and dramatic. Even her record company, 4AD, likens her to a “Bunraku puppet’s gnashing grin”. Tonight, there’s some of that, but a lot more of the quietly serious artist, a singer and musician of singular talent and unique style. It all adds to a feeling that this is not a gig, but an experience. She gives her all, chugging away unapologetically on red bull. It doesn’t matter if it’s artifice or psychology really, the result is compelling.

This is more a recital than a rock gig. Her on stage intensity is felt across the gulf between stage and mosh pit, and the quieter songs are among the most powerful. She can hold a large stage now, make us feel it’s intimate in one minute, huge the next. If I had to compare her to anyone it’s latter day Nick Cave – simple instruments played well by a great band, an impenetrable mix of humour and seriousness, inscrutable lyrics, and a performance that is as fascinating as it is popular.

Her music is driven by either simple nylon string picking or piano chords. In even the biggest of the songs, it’s often her own guitar that keeps the momentum going. Her band are unobtrusive supporters, occasionally brought forward, but primarily there to provide a cushion for her weaving vocals. I’m not a huge fan of the more ingenue like vocal excursions, but they are undeniably effective. Her folky roots underpin a voice that has dynamic range and unique timbres.

In even the biggest of the songs, it’s often her own guitar that keeps the momentum going.

The sound is pretty darn good too. It’s unusually quiet and distinct, so much so that at times it’s threatened by the opening of cans of beer at the bar. Sometimes she speaks too quietly for us to hear over the buzz of others’ conversations, at others everything stops as the whole venue focuses in rapt silence.

She moves through a set mostly focused on material from her last album, plus the obvious ones. One omission is Horizon – shame really. The Barrel is terrific and rollicking, Imagining My Man dramatic and the rest of the set moves around in mood, tone and sonic pressure appropriately.

I missed a couple of songs towards the end, feeling unwell, (side note, the staff at the Forum were amazingly thoughtful and fast to react, a pleasant surprise), but caught the finish and encore, where we showed our appreciation and Harding lapped it up, bathing like the emerging diva that she is in the warm glow.

Aldous Harding’s Australian tour leg is finished, but she’s in New Zealand this coming weekend.

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